Pentagon May Relocate One of its 2 Navy Hospital Ships

Military Sealift Command hospital ship USNS Mercy departs San Diego.
Military Sealift Command hospital ship USNS Mercy (T-AH 19) departs San Diego, March 23, 2020.. (U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Natalie M. Byers)

The Defense Department is considering whether to relocate at least one of the two Navy hospital ships deployed to support the COVID-19 pandemic response, as it works with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Department of Health and Human Services to determine the next potential novel coronavirus hot spots.

Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs Thomas McCaffery said Friday that a decision has not been made on whether the hospital ship Comfort, currently in New York, or the Mercy, in Los Angeles, will move, but their locations are under review.

Gen. Terrence O'Shaughnessy, head of U.S. Northern Command, is responsible for deciding where to locate the ships, field hospitals and staff, in collaboration with other federal agencies, McCaffery said.

"I don't want to get out in front and say that we have a decision for what's next for the Comfort and the Mercy. That is all going to be reviewed and considered as part of the all-of-nation effort -- where the next hot spots are, what are the priorities and what are the priorities for our military medical capabilities," McCaffery said during a press conference Friday.

Related: One-Third of DoD's Hospitalized COVID-19 Patients Are in the ICU

The 1,000-bed Mercy had 15 patients as of Friday. Its staff has performed several operations since arriving at the Port of Los Angeles on March 27, including an appendectomy and gallbladder removal, and treated several cases of heart failure and pneumonia.

The Comfort, in New York City, currently has 64 patients. Originally sent to relieve hospitals of trauma and emergency room cases during the pandemic, it shifted focus earlier this week to take coronavirus patients.

The change was necessary to meet the city's medical needs, McCaffery explained.

"When we first responded to a request from FEMA and HHS, there was a concern and a desire that the capabilities of the Comfort -- trauma and ER -- could very well be needed if indeed the civilian sector in New York was overwhelmed and did not have the capacity to take on those patients. It very much made sense that, [in] the epicenter of the nation's pandemic outbreak, that was a real threat."

But with fewer trauma cases occurring in New York as a result of stay-at-home orders, the ship adapted, he said.

"Now, we are looking at how we make better use of that facility," McCaffery said.

In New York City, the 531st Army Field Hospital from Fort Campbell, Kentucky, and the 9th Hospital Center from Fort Hood, Texas, are caring for 255 patients at the Javits Center, and 366 military medical personnel, including 163 doctors, 190 nurses and 13 respiratory therapists, are dispersed in city hospitals, with another 300 expected to arrive Saturday.

In Seattle, the ICU of the 627th Hospital Center and 47th Combat Support Hospital was disassembled after not being needed and is ready for use elsewhere, according to DoD officials.

In New Orleans, a Navy Expeditionary Medical Facility at the Ernest Morial Convention Center has begun taking patients; in Dallas, another Navy field hospital at the Hutchinson Center is 90% complete.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is constructing 21 alternate care facilities to be used in the event that area hospitals become overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients. The facilities are expected to add 16,913 beds in states and cities with bed shortages.

More than 28,000 Army and Air National Guard personnel are deployed to support state responses to the pandemic, including 3,400 members who are managing the Javits Center and supporting drive-through testing sites.

In the United States, more than 473,000 people have confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 17,836 had died as of Friday, according to Johns Hopkins University's Coronavirus Resource Center.

-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime

Read more: Army's Seattle Field Hospital Closes After 3 Days, Without Treating a Single Patient

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